GASTONIA The line forms at 7 a.m., two hours before the food bank opens.
Betty Ziltenger, 63, knows from experience to arrive early.
If you dont, youll be back there where they are, she said, nodding toward people bringing up the rear.
Once a week, Ziltenger comes to B.R.E.A.D. Inc., a Christian-based food bank on Gastonias main drag Franklin Boulevard.
At the location between the City Hall and the new Gastonia Conference Center, she joins hundreds of others some in wheelchairs or on crutches - getting bread, soft drinks, salads.
The nonprofit food bank has survived for nearly 15 years on donations and volunteer help. In May, B.R.E.A.D. volunteers reported a record-breaking month, providing food for 2,648 Gaston residents.
But while demand for services is up, the food bank is feeling the strain: donations are dwindling and a new building is needed to replace the current 5,000-square-foot structure thats being rented.
One of dozens of assistance programs in Gaston County, B.R.E.A.D. the letters stand for Blessings Received Each Appointed Day spends between $1,500 and $3,000 a month to operate; volunteers say staying afloat is a struggle.
We dont know the amount of food and money that will be donated every month, said marketing assistant Jill Moore of Lincolnton. The people who come here live day by day. So do we.
Retired and disabled, Ziltenger is on a fixed income thats always stretched thin. Although she worked in textiles and as a certified nursing assistant, her minimum income now is too much for her to qualify for food stamps or Medicaid.
Its hard to live so I go to places like this that God has provided, she said. This place helps me a great deal.
Gaston County has been hard hit in recent years by the loss of textile jobs. The current unemployment rate is 10.3 percent. This is for the month of May and is not seasonally adjusted. Based on the 2010 census, Gastons poverty rate was 16.6 percent compared to the statewide rate of 15.6 percent.
In the Gaston school system, more than half of the 32,000 students get free or reduced lunches. Eligibility is based on federal guidelines for household incomes and size.
Crisis assistance programs throughout Gaston are feeling increased pressures from people in need. Many who cant afford the grocery store go from one assistance program to another looking for specific items.
The Belmont Community Organization (BCO), which was formed in 1956, distributes between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds of food a month to an average of 200 families.
Were seeing a steady increase yearly, said BCO Executive Director Paula Wilkerson. Our most pressing need is food.
Cathy Howell, executive director of Crisis Assistance Ministries in Gastonia, said that while the program is busy were not any busier than last year.
Shes been with the organization through 22 of its 35 years and said its financial base and donations have remained strong through tough times. In June, the program assisted 329 households, proving food to 516 people.
Howell said that while she thinks more people are going back to work theyre still not making it.
There are just not enough good jobs our client population can get and support their families, Howell said. Theyre back at work and still not making it. We have a lot of underemployed people. But we love to help people who are working and giving an effort.
Fortunately, in Gaston County theres a lot of assistance available to people, Howell said. A lot of places to go get help.
Gastonia lawyer Don Bumgardner, chairman of the B.R.E.A.D board of directors, would like to see the nonprofit stay open seven days a week.
But the resources arent there.
Were unique in that we dont get any government grants or help from United Way, he said. Were totally independent. Were out here by ourselves.
While the program isnt affiliated with any church, and doesnt preach to clients, Bumgardner said B.R.E.A.D. reserves the right to pray with them or make encouraging comments like Jesus loves you.
Its a wonderful organization, he said. The volunteers who work here are people who want to do something for the community. The unloading, bagging and packing all that is hard work. And nobody gets paid.
Life can be better
B.R.E.A.D. president Dorothy Lowery, 85, who is the pastor of a Pentecostal church, has been with the food bank since its early days.
Decades ago, on a mission trip to Egypt, she saw women and children so hungry they were pulling grass out of the ground and eating it. The image stays with her as people file into the B.R.E.A.D. building.
I see desperate people coming in, Lowery said. Its heartbreaking.
To get assistance, people must show an ID, proof of income and the bills they pay. Theyre allowed a once-weekly bag of bread, soft drinks and occasional salad and once a month can get a box of staple food items that may or may not include chips, crackers, various sauces and other items.
Distribution is on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 9 a.m. until noon. Clients wait for hours in the rain or cold or scorching temperatures.
When doors open the atmosphere is welcoming.
We dont want to make them feel like beggars, Lowery said. We tell them were here to help that life can be better.
In addition to food, the nonprofit also provides clothing and assists people in finding work and housing.
Sometimes lines spill out of the nonprofits parking area on to the sidewalk along Franklin Boulevard.
On a recent morning, people left carrying boxes or pulling grocery carts loaded with items.
Ronald Ivey, 62, came by for soft drinks. A retired construction worker living on Social Security he said every little bit helps.
By the time you pay rent, the house payment, car and utilities, theres nothing left, he said. I dont quality for food stamps because I have just a little bit too much income. You just have to cut back.